It’s official – Jim Mickle is hastily becoming one of my favorite quasi-independent filmmakers. Grabbing my attention with Stake Land and asserting his gritty dominance with We Are What We Are, I immediately recognized an impressive, instinctual knack for down-and-dirty, no-frills cinema. Horror can distract with gnarly vampires, hungry cannibals, religious exploitation, and gore galore – something Mickle already delivered – but a thriller requires more finesse. Mysteries must unravel, tension must hold, and emotional notes can’t rely on monsters or mayhem, but Mickle transitions well into this twisted story of revenge, love, and good old Southern justice. Looks like Cold In July makes the director three for three in my book – a confident three for three.
Michael C. Hall plays Richard Dane, a simple frame shop owner whose life is thrown into chaos after killing a burglar standing in his very living room. Thinking of only protecting his family, Richard dispatches of the intruder quickly – leaving behind bloody remnants of the night – but Richard soon learns that his victim’s ex-con father is still alive, and might not be too pleased. Confronting the man (Sam Shepard), Richard becomes tormented by unsafe thoughts yet again, fearing his son and wife might be targets. Can Richard keep his family safe from the obsessed madman – or are there larger forces at play pitting these two parents against one another?
Mickle and writing partner Nick Damici adapt Joe R. Lansdale’s down-home novel for a wonderfully rendered tale of family dynamics and moral justice. Cold In July is full, robust, and meaty storytelling, fitting of Mickle’s “Southern Comfort” style of visual representation and clear-cut pacing. Think about a bowl of cheesy grits – simple in concept, but when spiced properly and injected with beefy flavors, you can’t help but lick a bowl clean. Mickle has this grounded, hearty simplicity about his projects that never disappoints, dealing with high-concept ideas in ways that are enjoyably straight-forward.
Scene by scene we meet new characters, as Cold In July slowly shifts from pseudo-horror film to criminal drama, yet Mickle always keeps advancing forward with ease. He nails a feeling of secluded suburbanism while exploring the struggles of two passionate fathers – yet introduces a very 80s vibe when Don Johnson’s flashy cowboy enters the picture. Cold In July is a tonal melting pot of deep, rich flavors that burst through as to compliment one another, as a film we’d envision to be whistlin’ dixie soon finds accompanying soundtracks straight from Miami Vice. Driving, dark synth-rock sounds power Mickle’s sleek, punctuated scenes, tied perfectly with a slew of reddish, pinkish neon lighting choices scattered about a typically dank and murky atmosphere. Frankly, I found myself being reminded of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive between tonal shifts and comparable revenge aspects, but Mickle certainly delivers a more graspable take on Refn’s uber-minimalist methodologies – a strong, independently-influenced voice.
Our trio of leading men combine for a volatile mix of emotionally charged bombs waiting to go off, yet a buddy camaraderie is established over time. Between Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson, there’s a real chemistry built amongst mutual strangers, as feelings shift from mutual hatred to respected trust – an unlikely band of misfits. Hall plays the loving father seeking a clear conscious after his violent home protection, Shepard plays the vengeful father who grows to understand a far more horrific fate, and Johnson appears as a slick talking, flashy, Texan private detective – animal print seats on his convertible and all. All from different walks of life, we watch simple folk become old-west lawmen, adapting to vigilante justice when given no other viable option – a different emotional journey sought out by each actor.
Hall’s transformation over time becomes the main source of drama for Cold In July, as the Dexter alumni once again finds himself killing in the name of all that is good. With so many twists and turns, it could be easy for an actor to become lost in such a daunting role, but Hall displays a wide range of reactions while his character Richard attempts to not only protect himself, his family, and his home, but also crack a criminal case that the authorities swept under a rug. Richard struggles with guilt, fear, and frustrated outbursts, only becoming worse when Sam Shepard’s character is introduced. From here, Richard’s conscious is further explored, and Hall’s performance becomes even more intriguing for spoiler reasons I can’t disclose – but Michael C. Hall hasn’t looked more comfortable playing a character since his popular TV stint.
Jim Mickle’s cold-blooded thriller will leave mouths gaping from the very moment Richard pulls the trigger. What starts with a bang ends with an explosive, gratuitous finale, as the director asserts a vibrant, distinct voice blending grungy, almost noir-ish filmmaking with Refn-like visual grace. With each directorial feature Mickle is finding a distinct voice, and Cold In July stands as his most vivid, intoxicating caper yet – a Southern-fried thrill ride with all the right trimmings.
Michael C. Hall shines, Sam Shepard intimidates, and Don Johnson just has too much twangy swagger not to love, but Mickle’s watchful eye is the glue that binds them together. Cold In July is a white-knuckle thriller you simply cannot miss – case closed.